Justice is blind after all

A history professor describes his remarkable ordeal on a typical jury

Imagine a classroom where the instructors speak a foreign language and the students can't take notes, turn to a textbook, or ask any questions. Yet at the end of the final exam, one participant may face life in jail or even death. That's the task handed to American jurors, briefly thrown together to decide accused criminals' fate.

In "A Trial by Jury," Princeton history professor D. Graham Burnett offers a rare glimpse inside jury deliberations at a New York murder trial where he served as foreman last year.

According to the prosecutor, the case seems clear cut: a sexual encounter between two men went awry. The defendant stabbed his victim 26 times, but claims he acted in self-defense, killing a man who was attempting to rape him.

Burnett opens with a graphic description of the crime. He then introduces the characters and walks readers through the 10-day trial. You hear the testimony of witnesses dressed in drag and find yourself put off by a growling prosecutor and the judge's grumpy indifference.

Most of the drama, though, comes during four days and three nights of deliberations. Once sequestered in the jury room, confusion reigns. Most jurors don't understand the charges or the meaning of self-defense. Jurors form friendships, massage egos, and pressure holdouts. Uninterested jurors seem more concerned about missing appointments.

On the third day, one juror runs to a bathroom in tears after exchanging curses. By the final day, nearly everyone cries.

Though he's no more familiar with the law than the other jurors, who include a vacuum-cleaner repairman and a software developer, it's fitting that Burnett is a teacher. For us, he serves as a patient instructor, illustrating with his experience just what a remarkable and sometimes remarkably strange duty serving on a jury can be.

For many citizens, jury duty is their first exposure to our justice system. Jurors discover first hand the gap between law and justice. They face two flawed versions of the same event, offered by unsavory witnesses they may not believe.

As Burnett observes, "We expect much of this room, and we think about it less often than we probably should." We assume jurors will take their job seriously. We expect them to digest complicated definitions that leave lawyers confused.

But as Burnett quickly discovers, jurors receive little help. The judge offers them no guidance about how to conduct themselves and races through his delivery of the murder charges.

Only within the past decade have we finally abandoned the delusion that jurors naturally reach the right decision without any assistance. Led by Arizona, states have instituted jury reforms as simple as letting jurors take notes or obtain written copies of their instructions. It's not clear whether these changes improve the quality of justice, but the reforms certainly ensure that jurors leave their tour of duty with better feelings about the experience.

Unfortunately, such reforms hadn't come yet to New York at the time of this trial. Nonetheless, Burnett and his fellow jurors grope toward their own solution, ultimately reaching what he describes as an "avowedly imperfect" result. In the process, Burnett provides a riveting look at citizen jurors at work.

Seth Stern graduated from the Harvard Law School before joining the Monitor staff this fall.

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